George Lucas Educational Foundation
Curriculum Planning

Redefining Failure

Why encouraging students to get everything right is the wrong direction.

Three cartoon lightbulbs standing together–one frowning, one jumping up and down and smiling, the other crying.
Three cartoon lightbulbs standing together–one frowning, one jumping up and down and smiling, the other crying.

As educators, we understand conceptually how failure can help students learn, but do we really believe it? I think if we did, we might build failure—in a significant way—into the scope and sequence of our curriculum. (It's true that state testing season is upon us and the word failure is hardly permissible right now, but let's talk about it anyway.) What would our classrooms perhaps look like if we were to allow for more failure, even embrace it?

Failure in the Classroom: How It Looks

For starters, a classroom based on failure would encourage routine trial and error. When we teachers plan ahead for there to be failure, we create time for students to flounder, take missteps, or even totally fail. Inquiry-based learning uses failure to its best advantage. (To make sure we are using the word inquiry correctly, inquiry is a learning activity in which the solution or end result is not known beforehand—even the teacher is unsure of what students will come up with.)

Teachers who are designing inquiry-based learning for their students take the essential feedback from failure and make sure there are multiple opportunities for students to improve. This is often done in a low stakes or formative way, allowing students to practice and do better. For example, it only takes a few gutter balls before someone learning to bowl will be able to send that ball down the middle of the lane. A handful more practice throws and that learner may experience the thrill of a strike. Each time that beginning bowler rolls that ball, the iterative act gets him closer to his goal.

Teachers not fearful of failure can encourage students to take risks—“Go ahead and roll that ball!”—recognizing from the start that some of those risks will move students to the next level of learning.

Before the next iteration of the learning process, a teacher who embraces failure will teach students to begin the learning-from-mistakes process by asking not just “How did the project, paper, or plan fail?” but also:

  • "Why did it fail?”
  • “Was the approach flawed from the initial concept?”
  • “What was not flawed?”
  • “What is your next step, and what will you adjust or keep the same?”

Wicked Problems

Teachers who espouse failure in their classrooms also relish “wicked problems”—those really difficult problems that are seemingly impossible to solve. Failure-friendly teachers know that a group of students has a much better chance of successfully tackling wicked problems than a student working solo (regardless of her smarts) because of the synergy of multiple viewpoints—all thinking about the same problem. Thus, students working together with a collaborative spirit is key.

I believe that truly embracing failure in our classrooms is an antidote to shallow learning. For example, students in difficult math classes in Helsinki, Finland, are expected to fail horribly at first, and the students and teachers don’t freak out about it. The students are given time and support to learn from their mistakes and make corrections. They understand that always getting the problem right or getting it right from the very start is not akin to living in the real world.

The Power of Failure

Teachers open to students failing will teach them to apply the process of plan-do-study-act. For example, when solving a wicked math problem, students would first name the problem (drawing a picture if necessary) and plan a first step. Then, in do, they work the problem with that plan and see how far it will go. Students then study the progress and if they’re on the right track, continue; otherwise they start over on a different avenue. Next, they ask others what they did and get more information, while also looking at examples of similar problems. Finally, they act to either complete the problem or start over with a different approach. This is a messy process, yet this is what real learning is all about.

When we teachers adopt and practice the power of failure in our classrooms, a low mark on a paper or project will no longer signify defeat and despair to our students. Instead it will signify an opportunity to go back to concept and discover the error in thinking. This encourages students to work together and engage in the iterative learning process of taking failure and making it a success. In my experiences, it increases the quality of the products because students (and teachers) don’t simply settle for “good enough.”

Creating a space in the classroom for failure also encourages students to approach solving problems in nonlinear ways, using multiple possibilities and futures for refining their thinking. How do you employ failure in your classroom? Please share in the comments section below.

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HorusBay's picture

In the language learning environment, it is so hard to predict whether the mistakes of students help them learn. But I normally encourage students to make mistakes and explain its part of learning. I always ask them: Can you tell me the name of a person you know who has never failed on the first try of a new activity? They may try and impress others by saying they do, but they understand the realism behind the question. A true master makes countless mistakes; a false one, none.

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Loretta Heuer's picture

Excellent article. Math educator and staff developer here. Many adults have misconceptions, if not outright fear of mathematics. My job is to pose interesting problems that are open-ended enough to require discussion...which often uncovers misconceptions. I tell them the same thing I used to say to my school-age students, "That is a WONDERFUL mistake! So many people think that way. Probably some of you? (as I look around the room.) Perfectly normal. Let's talk it through." Just the other day I heard a teacher/parent say (in the kindest way) that she gives her kids "the gift of failure". That is, it's OK to make mistakes. Don't just sit there, say nothing, and pretend you understand. Because together we can work it out.

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Yanglish's picture

"Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something."
Morihei Ueshiba

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Gina's picture

I work with some high-achieving kids who are used to picking concepts up really quickly, so my aim is to teach them how to wrestle with maths when they can't pick it up quickly. A while ago I read an article by Edward Burger (https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/08/21/essay-importance-teachin...) about the importance of teaching for failure. That's college level maths - I wondered whether I could modify it for elementary school.

The idea of "failing well" seemed a bit much to ask young students to get their heads around. But in a couple of classes last year I decided to be quite explicit about why it was important to fail and how I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to fail. And I asked the students to help me decide how to manage the process. We talked a lot about asking questions, making mistakes, making guesses ...

And in the end we decided we would create a taxonomy of errors. I tried to make a big fuss of every new error that we could add to our list, but over the course of the term we found that they fell into only a few categories :

1. Did not understand vocabulary.
2. Did not explain vocabulary.
3. Forgot to complete the process.
4. Arithmetic error.

My overarching hope was that the students would get used to the idea of mistakes and wouldn't be afraid of making them. Certainly they learned pretty quickly to put their hands up when they didn't understand a word or term that had been used, either by me or by one of their classmates, rather than sitting quietly in fear of looking ignorant. And they began to remember - sometimes - to check whether the long and involved process they had been absorbed in actually answered the question that had been asked or whether there were extra steps to be completed. And I made a point of celebrating the hard intellectual effort of working out a new concept or method, even although a mistake in calculations meant that the answer was incorrect.

I need to be more rigorous about assessing whether this had any real effect on their thinking. But one student commented, in feedback at the end of the term, "I've learned that sometimes in maths you make mistakes and that's OK." So I'm optimistic.

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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Horus:

I agree with you. We have to get over the idea that admitting that we make mistakes is a cop-out for not doing a good job. If we are all about learning, then mistakes have to be treated as learning opportunities to be embraced not t o be avoidedl

a9a9d's picture

I feel that calling it failure is itself a cloaked message of "Avoid it". While we can convince them that we believe in "everyone makes mistakes" they will see through it all that we eventually want them to not repeat them.

In my classes I have a visual map of paths taken & where we get to. Each path is valid & helps us realise where it will get us. The children then learn to pick the path based on the outcome necessary. Even in Maths, the variety of answers will lead us to unbalanced equations & unfair distributions & loss or excess money in the hand. When children see that all these are possible, they seem to move on knowing how to choose the one which satisfies the need of the moment. This, of course, works best in projects & hand-on activities but, in my experience, it also helps in traditionally silo-ed subjects.

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

I agree that the word "failure" has so much emotional baggage that it's tough at this point to change people's minds. To fail is to not achieve a goal...and how many of us achieve meaningful goals on the first try. It would be great if teachers would reject the negative stigma of failure, celebrate each attempt that doesn't end in immediate success, and help students understand what they have learned--the feedback that they have gained while supposedly "failing." All we have to do is watch this video to remember the joy of learning when failure just brings you one step closer to success. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIzuy9fcf1k

Veronica Pena's picture

It is not necessary to cause failure situations with difficult problems or withholding information. Instead, as the articles states, teachers need to be open to those times in which failure occurs. Instead of correcting it for the student or being frustrated at the incorrect answer, take the time to help the student reflect on what happened. Encourage the student to find the correct answer, find where the problem went wrong, etc. With this discovery, it builds the knowledge resources for independent thinking which is critical when the student transitions to an authentic setting.

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